Heathen Apologetics, Part 1: Pascal’s Wager
When I was in high school, I took a class called “Myths, Dreams, and Cultures” (or MDC, for short). Now, I attended a fairly upscale private Catholic school, and all but a very few students came from Christian upbringings. As such, one of the main goals of MDC was to open the students up to the understanding that we were a product of our culture, and that other cultures often had very different pictures of the world. To that end, we would play a game called “Stump the Aborigine.” Our teacher took on the role of an idealized traditionalist Native American, living off the land, completely divorced from modern, American culture. Our job was to be the representatives of Modern America in order to convince this “primitive” of the superiority of our way of life. If anyone could succeed at convincing the aborigine to leave his culture for the one we were selling, our teacher promised to buy that student a brand-new car.
It did not take long for me to realize that the game was rigged.
When people have fundamentally different views on the value of certain principles or objects, it becomes impossible to carry on a persuasive argument on equal footing. Such arguments require unanimity in the way we define our terms, otherwise communication breaks down fairly quickly. We soon find our opponents to be proclaiming the deliciousness of apples, when we’ve been trying to talk about oranges the whole time. After I came to this realization, it suddenly occurred to me that the Christian worldview with which I’d been raised– a particularly Evangelical, fundamentalist, non-denominational Protestantism– had an entirely different vocabulary than that of other people. Even other Christians viewed things differently, as I would learn from discussing theology with my Roman Catholic friends and teachers. In fact, I found that I could argue just as vehemently for ANY arbitrary worldview, if I adopted its particular vocabulary and values, as I argue for my own. “Stump the Aborigine” demonstrated this with a hypothetical Native American, but I could apply the same principles to argue for Catholicism or Islam or Buddhism or anything. I could even take something which most people see as being kooky, backwards, and incredulous, and argue for it with just as much rationale, passion, and aplomb as I had when defending my own worldview. I could defend the Norse gods as easily as I could defend Jesus Christ.
This post begins a series I will be writing, inspired by that lovely game played by high school students. However, I’m going to add my own little twist to the game. For each entry in the series, I’m going to adopt a popular argument commonly utilized by apologists of a major religion. However, I will present that argument in support of Norse Heathenism, a modern reconstruction of the polytheistic folk religion practiced in the Medieval period by vikings and other Scandinavian peoples. When the same argument can be utilized to draw two disparate and mutually exclusive conclusions, it should be readily apparent that there is a problem with the argument.
Today’s topic: Pascal’s Wager, Heathen Style.
Arguments about religion often come to a very basic impasse: I cannot prove that my god exists, but neither can you prove that my god does not exist. How, then, are we to decide which of these two opposite cases to support? It becomes something of a gamble. But if we are gambling, then shouldn’t we weigh the risk against the reward in order to decide? After all, when I sit down at a Roulette table, I have no idea where the ball will drop at the end of its spin. I weigh the probability against the likely reward before I place my wager, in order to make the best possible bet. That’s very easy when I know the rules of Roulette. So, then, allow me to set out the rules for my philosophical wager:
- Odin exists, or else Odin does not exist.
- We cannot decide between these options on the basis of reason and physical evidence.
- A decision must be made between the two– the wager is not optional.
- Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that Odin exists. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain eternal glory in Valhalla; if you lose, you lose nothing.
- Wager, then, without hesitation that Odin exists. There is here an infinity of an infinitely glorious life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.
Therefore, there is no good reason for anyone to disbelieve in Odin. Think of it this way: let’s say a friend of yours offers you a wager. He will flip a coin. If the coin turns up Heads, he will give you $10,000,000. If it comes up tails, you owe him absolutely nothing. Will you place a wager on Heads? Or will you walk away? Obviously, with a 50/50 shot of gaining the money, and no chance of losing anything, you will play that wager. What if, instead of flipping a coin, your friend is going to roll a die. If he rolls a 6, he’ll give you the whole payout, and if he does not roll a 6, you owe him nothing. You would still play this wager, wouldn’t you? What if he’s rolling two dice, and only paying on double-6’s? What if he offers you a one-in-a-thousand chance to win that bet, with no chance of losing money? One in a million? One in a billion? One in a googol?
You should always take the bet. If you take the bet, you actually have a chance at winning, and no chance of losing anything. If you do not take the bet, you neither gain nor lose. So, regardless of the odds, the smart choice is always to take the bet. But what if there actually was some sort of loss associated with the bet? If your friend was wagering his $10,000,000 against $1 from your wallet, would you still make the bet, regardless of the odds? Most people would still make this wager, since the risk is so very tiny in comparison to the reward.
Now, in considering our original wager, the gain is not just ten-million dollars. The gain is infinite– it is an eternity of glory in the mead hall of the Allfather. Therefore, any finite loss– no matter how large– is infinitesimally small in comparison to the possible gain. Wagering $1 to win $10,000,000 poses an infinitely larger risk than wagering any finite amount against an infinite reward.
Therefore, everyone should should wager that Odin is real.